Are you looking for a way to help your students engage with the historical events in your social studies curriculum? One exciting way to help connect the past with the present is to use primary sources in your classroom.
Even if you don’t have much experience with these powerful teaching tools, I think you’ll find primary sources enjoyable and flexible to use with students. Students think it is soooo cool to see a period cartoon or the diary of a famous person from history (let’s be honest, I totally think it’s pretty awesome too!). But where do you get started? At the beginning, of course!
So, what IS a primary source, exactly?
A primary source is a historical document that was created at a point in history. It provides a first-hand account of a topic, period, or event. Primary sources are rich sources of historical information because they offer a front row seat to history.
Primary sources reveal information from a first-person perspective, offering a unique view into the past. Students are often used to learning history as a list of dates, facts, and timelines (all important, don’t get me wrong!); primary sources offer a personal view of history instead.
Types of Primary Sources
Primary sources are any documents or artifacts that originate from a person who witnessed or lived through an event in history. One type is written works: diaries, letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and memoirs. Graphic documents are also primary sources, including drawings, maps, photographs, cartoons, signs, etc. Artifacts, like tools, household objects, and other articles are another type of primary source that offer a unique glimpse into the lives of those who created and used them.
Primary or Secondary?
Primary sources are our window into the past. Secondary sources are historians’ interpretation of primary sources. For example, while an autobiography or memoir is a primary source, a biography would be a secondary source. Secondary sources can also include books and articles about a part of history. Secondary sources are important too, because they help to put primary sources into context, but they often lack the WOW power that primary sources offer.
Locating Primary Sources
Want to know a secret?! Primary sources are actually NOT that hard to find! Seriously! Because copyright laws allow most published materials from history (pre-1920s) to be freely published, Google is your friend when it comes to finding first-hand documents related to what you are studying.
Beyond that, the Library Congress is a goldmine when it comes to primary sources for US history. They even sort by themes and sets.
And, to help you out, I’ve put together ginormous lists of where to find American History Primary Sources and World History Primary Sources to get you started! (Psssst! There’s also a Primary vs. Secondary Source Freebie at those links!)
Check out Part 2 for ideas about how to introduce and use primary sources in the classroom!
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Click the button below to download FREE primary vs. secondary source worksheets!